Some call it ‘grit.’ Others call it ‘dog.’ Whatever you call it that intangible attitude quotient that most winning teams have, everyone agreed Michigan didn’t exhibit much of it during the first half of the season.
Then Derrick Walton stepped up and gave it to the Wolverines on a level not seen since Trey Burke ran the show in Ann Arbor. The turning point was the middle of the season. The Wolverines had suffered an embarrassing defeat to Illinois and afterward heard Illini center Maverick Morgan refer to them as a “white collar” team. The prompted Walton to call a players only meeting where he made it clear he knew he had to give more to his team.
That meant first raising his level of play, then demanding others do the same. Ironically the first part may have been harder than the second for a youngster that has never been known for being the most vocal player on the floor. That, however, it what his team needed. And just like his father would do when coaching him at Chandler Park Academy, his coaches at Michigan challenged him to answer that bell.
“We had to have to have a little head to head skull session about midway through the season,” Michigan assistant Saddi Washington said. “It’s just one of those things where you’re either going to kick yourself in the butt five years from now (or)ten years form for not just allowing yourself to be ‘the guy.’ And at that point in the season we needed him to be Batman. We didn’t need another Robin. We needed him to be ‘the guy.”
“I told him, ‘Derrick, I remember Chandler Park Derrick. I didn’t watch a lot of him throughout his career here, so my last (memory) of him was the dude that was just dropping 40 points in games without even blinking. I was like, ‘let’s get back to that!’ Find your theme music. Find whatever it is that gets your mojo running, and that’s what we were looking for. He found it. All credit to him, and he has done a great job with it.”
Walton taking the reins gave the team the role definition that it so obviously needed. With him wearing the bullseye on his back he relieved some of the pressure on others. He also became a calming force in the face of on and off-court adversity.
“Being the leader, the other guys have to be able to look to you with confidence,” Washington explained. “When they see confidence in your actions, your face, and your body language, that just carries over. It’s one of those things… you can be an energy giver or you can be an energy taker. Right now Derrick has been feeding this team all kinds of energy.”
For Walton that’s what it’s all about.
“I just wanted to be consistent at it knowing that it not really makes or breaks this team, but it’s one of the things that helps us be successful,” Walton said. “It’s not even about me. It’s about me coming out my shell to help my team. It’s a team thing for me. It was working, so I never went away from it.”
He also isn’t shying away from chirping at opponents. It’s a type of gamesmanship synonymous with where he comes from.
“He can’t be from (Detroit), and be always a nice guy,” said Washington. “We need that ‘texture’ from him that he has had the last month and a half… two months. We’re going to need it moving forward. For a kid who’s a senior, he sees the end coming. We hope we can extend his season and his career a little bit longer in a Michigan uniform.”
“I’m an East side of Detroit guy,” added Walton. “That’s how we play. We let you hear about it sometimes, and sometimes we don’t. I think it just raised my level of competitiveness. I’m a competitive guy and that’s one of the ways to either get myself going or raise the stakes for my teammates.”